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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Germany's Crusade Against Climate Change

Air Date: Week of

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Germany is taking a leading role in developing and marketing technology to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases that cause global warming. Living on Earth's Chris Ballman reports on Germany's chances for success and what it stands to gain and to lose in the effort.


SPEECH: And the first compulsory measure is to agree to cut greenhouse gas emissions and to help each other to do so....

CURWOOD: There's a good reason why the United Nations climate negotiations are taking place here in Bonn, Germany's old capital. Germany, you see, wants to be seen as the world leader in efforts to curb global warming. So, when the Germans decided to move their capital back to Berlin after unification, they offered part of their old government complex to the U.N. climate change convention. The gesture is both symbolic and practical, and a quintessential German response to new global realities. Living on Earth's Chris Ballman reports on what's at stake for Germany as crusader against climate change. His story begins in the new Germany capital, Berlin.

[Men arguing in German]

BALLMAN: At a rally in the shadows of the Reichstag, just steps away from where the Berlin Wall once divided East and West, two men argue over the state of German democracy since re-unification. This is the new Germany and once-shunned topics like Communist evils and Nazi horrors are now openly discussed. Germans are putting the past behind, and many here say it's time to play a more assertive role on the world stage. And Petra Holtrup of the German Council on Foreign Relations says climate change is the perfect vehicle.

HOLTRUP: This, I think, comes from that Germany has found a topic that could play a leading role without being accused of trying to dominate everyone else.

BALLMAN: German concern for the environment isn't a new political maneuver. Germans got a wakeup call in the late 1970's when acid rain began destroying their beloved Black Forest. Later, Chernobyl sparked a fear that's led to a government pledge to dismantle the nation's nuclear industry. Anja Köhne of the German League for Nature and the Environment says recent soul-searching over past sins has sparked a new environmental awareness.

KÖHNE: We cannot go into this trip anymore about saving the world the German way because, I mean, we did pretty ugly things with that. But, the general thing, I would phrase it more positively. I would have a feeling "yeah, also, there were some lessons learned." And one lesson is that you should not take up more space than is due to you. And this is what you do in climate policy. If the industrialized countries emits so many climate emissions, this is using up more space and then this is a form of imperialism, and a form of corruption, which is not good.

BALLMAN: If Germany is setting the world agenda on climate change, it's doing so by setting an example at home-- with a plan to cut carbon dioxide emissions 25% by 2005.

SCHAFHAUSEN: That's our goals.

BALLMAN: And, that's Franz Josef Schafhausen. He's the man overseeing Germany's CO2 reductions, and he says that from the factory to the farm, in the home, office and automobile, emissions must be cut.

SCHAFHAUSEN: That's not only for environmental reasons but also for restructuring our economy, restructuring our society, creating new jobs, creating new technology, and being prepared for the future.

BALLMAN: Germany reduced carbon dioxide emissions 15% by shutting down East Germany's old, dirty industries and replacing them with modern facilities. Today, the emphasis is on cutting energy demand in homes and buildings.

[construction ambience]

BALLMAN: Restoring Berlin, Germany's capital, has created what is likely the world's largest construction site. Giant cranes fill the skyline and the din of the hammer is everywhere.


BALLMAN: With government loans and building codes that mandate energy savings, the architects of East Germany's remaking are going green. There are simple measures, like sensors in rooms that keep lights off until you enter, and subway escalators that don't move until you step on them.

[sound of people on escalator]

BALLMAN: Other plans are far-reaching.

KNAUMANN: You can see the skyline of Berlin and the sub-lying area of this power plant. All these buildings are connected with this power plant by pipes, underground pipes, and especially the feed loop by combined pipes.

BALLMAN: From a platform outside the control room, Andreas Naumann, can see the 60,000 homes and 500 businesses that get their heat and electricity from the Beiwag (sp) Co-generation Power Plant. When this was East Berlin, the plant burned oil. Now, natural gas and a high-tech feed loop system produce energy far more efficiently. And Naumann says, that means less pollutants going up the smokestack.

NAUMANN: The CO2 emissions are reduced by nearly 80% in comparison with the old power plant. And the CO2 reduction by the work of the new power plant is one million tons per year for Berlin.

BALLMAN: Co-generation is Germany's main avenue to reach its next carbon dioxide emissions target. And last month, government and industry agreed to double the output of co-generated power with incentives to build new plants and re-fit old ones. Other solutions to Germany's CO2 reductions are, literally, blowing in the wind.

[sound of wind turbines]

BALLMAN: Giant spinning rotor blades help Germany meet a lot of its future energy demands. I'm at the Klutchwitz Wind Park, about 50 miles south of Berlin, and I'm about to get a birds-eye view of Europe's largest wind park.

[squealing of lift]

BALLMAN: Park manager Henri Louvenhart prepares a tiny, open lift to carry us up to the turbine. There's only room for two so our translator, Paul Reid, must don a safety harness and climb a stepladder 255 feet to meet us at the top.

LUVENHART: Although bungee jumping is neat, it's not allowed (laughs).

REID: Oh, God.

BALLMAN: The turbine is about the size of a Winnebago. Inside, a computer controls the tilt and the speed of the rotors. A generator, a transformer, and a noisy cooler take up the rest of the space.

[machine noise]

LOUVENHART: In order that this trip up here is worth it all, we're going to take a wonderful look at the scenery around us.

BALLMAN: Henri opens a large flap, and below us, like giant pinwheels stuck in the earth, are the park's 44 high tech windmills. At full capacity, they make enough electricity to power 100,000 homes. Then, Henri tells us that this wind park sits on the remains of what was once Europe's largest open pit mine.

LOUVENHART: And you can notice from up here also, the contrast between the destruction of the old energy production of the mines where the landscape was completely altered and changed, to the new high tech and alternative source of energy the wind park provides which is a cleaner and more environmentally friendly and safer production source.

BALLMAN: By the end of the year, 10,000 wind turbines will dot the Germany landscape. They'll provide only about two percent of the nation's electricity, but renewable energy is key to the government's plan to wean the nation off nuclear power.

[wind turbine sound]

BALLMAN: The incentive for investors is a new government law. It guarantees renewable energy producers a price for the power they generate that's much higher than the energy made from fossil fuels. The government effort to jumpstart the industry does not sit well with some economists. Norbert Walker of the Deutsche Bank Group says the de facto subsidy ignores market realities.

WALKER: I guess, here, we probably have gone a bit overboard. It is very obvious renewable energy is something that can only be established over decades rather than years and you cannot possibly leave existing capacities unused and not pay a price for it. So, if you shutdown your nuclear energy plants then, of course, this has a cost for the economy and this has to be borne by the taxpayer.

BALLMAN: German policies to produce clean energy come with a huge price tag. Modernizing East Germany's industrial sector is estimated at about 75 billion dollars a year. Other government programs range from 20-50 billion dollars. Then, there's the eco-tax.

[car sounds]

BALLMAN: This gradual increase in petroleum prices is meant to curb demand and spur development of alternative fuels. It drew loud protests from truckers and farmers when it was introduced last year. And Petra Holtrup of the German Council on Foreign Relations says the public's pocketbook may be wearing thin.

HOLTRUP: I know that our support for climate change policy, in general, is around 80 or 90%. But, it depends how you ask. So if you connect this to "and what about our green tax, would you like to hire this out for about 3 D-mark per liter?" which is, in comparison to America, let's see, a gallon is about 3.8 liter which is about six or seven dollars per gallon, would you be willing to pay this (laughs)? I don't know. Well, the Germans are not willing to.

BALLMAN: Talk of an increase in the eco-tax is so sensitive, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder says he won't discuss the matter until after the next election. Meanwhile, Germany's CO2 emissions from cars, trucks, and other transport are up 11% this year. Recent reports also show industrial output rising faster than expected. Take away the CO2-free energy produced by nuclear plants and Germany may wind up in the embarrassing position of failing to meet its own targets.

HOLTRUP: And then we'll get into real trouble now because, of course, now they try to play a leading role in implementing, putting into force the Kyoto Protocol, and they can't go back without losing their face.

BALLMAN: If, and when, Germany meets its emissions targets may be a moot point. The restructuring of the country's energy sector is well underway. Analysts call it a "no-regrets investment" in the nation's economic future. Markus Kurdziel, science coordinator for Germany's environment minister, says already 100,000 jobs have been created. And the biggest gains are yet to come.

KURDZIEL: If we are the first to bring new technologies forward, it's probably us to be number one in export

BALLMAN: Germany's environmental exports are growing up to five times faster than exports overall. It's already the world's lead supplier of renewable energy products. And one market, just to the east, is all but guaranteed.

[coins pouring out)]/p>

BALLMAN: At a coin mint in Berlin, a machine spits shiny, new Euro-dollars into a sorter. The Euro goes into circulation throughout most of Europe next year and Germans like the sound of the future.

[more coins]

BALLMAN: Twelve Eastern European nations are in line to join the EU. But to gain entry, they must meet strict environmental standards...And Felix Christian Matthes of the Uko Institute says German technology is standing by.

MATTHES: The only chance for prosperity in Germany is the export because the future of Germany industry is not steel, and not coal, and not cement. It's high technology because in the information technology there's a large gap to the Americans, for example, and the only chance to get new markets, it's the energy efficiency market and the environmental market.

BALLMAN: The odds of this German gamble are affected by the climate negotiation process. Germany is pushing hard for the Kyoto Accord. The more nations that ratify the treaty, the more nations will need the technology to implement its emissions reductions. (wind turbine ambience) And Germany is poised to supply them and fulfill its climate change mission to do well by doing good. For Living on Earth, I'm Chris Ballman.

[wind turbine ambience fades]



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